Recently ABILITY Magazine editor-in-chief Chet Cooper spoke with Steve Tamburro, co-chair of the association of persons with disabilities at the Raytheon Company. Tamburro helped plan a recent Creating Pathways to Work retreat. The daylong strategic-visioning event brought together key representatives of federal and state government, educators, members of the business community and advocates for people with disabilities, along with Rhode Island Congressman Jim Langevin, the first quadriplegic elected to Congress. They huddled to address the barriers and challenges people with disabilities face when trying to enter the workforce. Tamburro, who has had MS for 10 years, serves as manager of Community Partnerships for Raytheon, an 80-year-old company that specializes in defense, homeland security and other government markets throughout the world.
Chet Cooper: How did you get involved with the retreat?
Steven Tamburro: I’ve been a member of the Rhode Island Business Leadership Network for the past few years. It was there that I met Elaina Goldstein. She leads Rhodes to Independence, which is devoted to ensuring that people with disabilities who want meaningful employment are able to find it. They also hold job fairs and prepare job candidates so they are interview-ready.
Elaina and I discussed a number of different things, and she invited me to serve on a conference panel to discuss the barriers and problems folks with disabilities face when trying to enter the work force. She decided to have me as a guest on the panel to represent the Business Leadership Network, Raytheon, as well as people with disabilities. It was a very interesting conference, but in the end everyone kind of turned to each other and said, “OK, now what?”
Cooper: Did anyone answer that question?
Tamburro: (laughs) Well, at first there was silence in the room. That’s a very bad thing for me, because when there’s silence, I tend to make a comment. But this time, I felt confident speaking up since it was about Raytheon’s Six Sigma process. We use it to solve all different kinds of problems or to facilitate a process, whether it be in manufacturing or in an office. So I said, ‘I don’t know how successful I’ll be, but I’m going to see if I can get Raytheon to sponsor a Six Sigma event to see if we can figure out our next steps.’ And we went from there.
Then I met with our vice president at the corporate office, Larry Harrington, who is an advocate for inclusion in the corporation in a number of different ways. He was very supportive. So we applied our Six Sigma methodology to the problem. It goes like this:
Step 1: Visualize—Establish the burning platform: Why is this problem worth investing the time and resources required to solve it, and what are attributes of the ideal or future state?
Step 2: Commit—Identify and obtain the commitment of the accountable sponsor; the sponsor ensures allocation of appropriate resources to move forward.
Step 3: Prioritize—Determine the scope of the project and the key, prioritized tasks required for the effort.
Step 4: Characterize—Document and analyze the current state, detailing and identifying the root causes of any undesirable effects, and identify potential alternatives.
Step 5: Improve—Apply tools, data-driven analysis and rational decision making processes to select the optimal solution; create and implement an improvement plan.
Step 6: Achieve—Capture results and celebrate the achievement; document lessons learned, sharing project documentation to shorten the cycle of learning when others approach similar issues.
Cooper: Sounds comprehensive. So, during the event, how did you identify who should be the key participants?
Tamburro: In Rhode Island, the issue is complicated because there are many different state agencies all trying to do the same thing. It’s almost like they’re in a competitive mode instead of a supportive one at times. So we knew that all of the folks in the state who are currently helping people with disabilities needed to be at the conference. That meant that we needed to get a commitment from the Department of Human Services, which we did. When Elaina approached the point person for that department, Gary Alexander, he immediately said,“Yes, we’ll definitely get the key people there that you need.” He got all of the different organizations involved by throwing his support behind it.
We also wanted some folks with disabilities who have actually used the system, their families, service providers and any other stakeholders. We were very successful in getting the attendance we needed.
Cooper: How did you get Congressman Langevin to participate?
Tamburro: He’s always been a supporter, both in Washington DC and within the state. He came to the event and brought two staffers.
Cooper: What were the results?
Tamburro: We identified the burning platform—the main problem that we’re trying to solve. Then we were able to create a vision statement to make sure that Rhode Island’s commitment to inclusiveness reflects something that truly recognizes the ability of all citizens, not just their disabilities. We also identified key stakeholders to serve as catalysts and move forward with the Six Sigma tools.
One thing that rang true was that there was a lack of knowledge about all the resources available within the state. Even folks that work with people with disabilities on a daily basis did not know all the resources available, and if they did, most didn’t understand them well enough to recommend them.
Also, various agencies weren’t working together. So there was definitely a need to clarify all the different organizations, what they do and how they do it. Workers needed to be made aware and familiarized with these programs. If somebody becomes disabled or is living with a disability and jumps on the internet to do research, they need to be able to determine which agency is best for them. So there needed to be more of a common vision and collaboration among the agencies. They needed to inform providers and clients of what is available and what might be best for them. So we focused a lot on education.
There were also knowledge gaps among the field workers. By that I mean, the field-office staff needs to be fluent with all the programs and processes and just provide accurate information and excellent service. The only way to be able to do that is to be fluent in how the services work and how the folks with disabilities can access them. So one of the themes that just kept coming up throughout the day seemed to be education, and that was a problem area that we could solve fairly easily. So each group took back work with a small team to start looking at getting some of these issues resolved. So those would be the next steps.
Cooper: Did you set dates for additional meetings?
Tamburro: Yeah, we’re hoping to have a progress meeting. There were some things—what we call “low-bearing fruit”—which we could do now and get some benefit from now. So those are the types of things we’re trying to implement going forward.
Cooper: Can you name some of this “fruit?”
Tamburro: (laughs) Specifically, some areas of education. One of the things that Amy Judge—the legislative assistant from Congressman Langevin’s office—was going to do is schedule town hall meetings to talk to people and educate them at various locations, mostly in Rhode Island. Continuing throughout next year, we were going for what we call constituent engagement, which meant collecting data from all of the town hall sessions and initiating advocacy in the legislative arena. So once there’s a good feeling for these town hall information-gathering sessions, we’ll start looking to see what type of role the legislature might play in this, what types of things need to be passed, what types of things need to be improved upon.
Cooper: So at this point you’re not prepared to set goals for a number of people that should be hired over a certain period of time?
Tamburro: We didn’t set any specific goals for the state of Rhode Island. There are people in the state that monitor those metrics as to how many folks with disabilities get jobs and how many retain them, so that data is available. What we’re hoping to do now is help people understand everything that’s out there and become better educated about state services and providers of those services. So that’s who we’re hoping to really impact, and that’s something we can measure.
I’m hoping to be able to get the same group back together at some point next year. But at a minimum, we can definitely do some type of survey of all the participants and find out how they see things changing. We could also go back to the actual clients, people with disabilities and ask how they’re doing. We could ask folks who used the system before the education process and folks who haven’t, to get a sense of whether or not people are becoming more aware of the services.
So it’s kind of a tough thing to get your arms around, but the fact of the matter is, the confusion is something that we feel we can clear up, and the education process is something that we can monitor and measure. We also wanted to follow up, after people went back to their groups, and find out how they were doing. Did everybody leave this event and go back to their lives and just say, ‘OK, that was a nice day with a nice lunch,’ and that’s that? Or were they truly committed? I think everyone at the meeting was excited. There was definitely an energy running through the room, so I really do believe that there will be some great impact from this.
Cooper: Aren’t the one-stops supposed to be doing what you’re doing—integrating all the different services and educating?
Tamburro: One-stop centers, as the name suggests, were definitely intended to be just that. You go in and you get all the information you need. But for whatever reason, that is not what was happening. To put your arms around it got extremely complicated. But that’s something we believed we could look at and have an impact.
Cooper: Has Raytheon set any company hiring goals in this area?
Tamburro: I don’t know specifically of any goals to hire people with disabilities. However, I do know that our company is extremely supportive of employees who have disabilities. Any needs-accommodation is provided without question for new hires and for anyone being interviewed for a position.
Cooper: So Raytheon is very active in Rhode Island. You probably have different hubs throughout the country?
Tamburro: Yes, we have facilities throughout the country and we’ve got international facilities, too. The business unit that I’m with is in Portsmouth, RI. There’s a number in Massachusetts, California, Washington state and Huntsville, AL.
Last year, Raytheon Missile Systems, which is based in Tucson, AZ, won the Department of Labor New Freedom Initiative Award. Their submission for that award goes into a lot of detail about the work they’re doing in and around Tucson within that business unit. The person who got this effort started in Tucson is the co-chairperson for the Raytheon Corporate Persons with Disabilities group. He gave me a lot of the information I needed to get the one in the Northeast started, so I’m very familiar with what they’ve been doing out at Missile Systems and the types of benefits that they’ve been getting from their organization.
Cooper: Did I hear that you have MS?
Cooper: How long ago were you diagnosed?
Tamburro: Going on 10 years now.
Cooper: And how are you doing?
Tamburro: Well, I sometimes feel like a chemistry experiment, between all the medications I inject or swallow. But for the most part, it’s keeping my MS fairly stable. It’s not something you can improve, so the more you can keep it stable, the better off you are.
Cooper: You’re on one of the ABC-group of medications?
Tamburro: Yes, beta serum. It’s been working pretty good for me.
Cooper: That’s good. Did you see the article we did with Terry Garr?
Tamburro: I did see that.
Cooper: You know, she had an aneurysm, which is so bizarre, which has no connection, as you probably know, to MS. But some people were trying to connect the two, which is not the case.
Tamburro: Because it can affect so many different things with you, there’s a lot of confusion about the different symptoms and ailments associated with MS. But that’s for the doctors to figure out.
Cooper: Were you doing anything around disability issues prior to being diagnosed?
Tamburro: I’ve been on the board of directors for Goodwill Industries of Rhode Island now for 14 years. When I was studying for my MBA, I got involved with them, and I had no idea that some day I would actually need their services. But we started Goodwill Industries in Rhode Island, which goes back to the Civil War, when they helped veterans disabled in the war. So it’s got an amazing history. I’m the chairman of the board now, and I’ve always been involved with them, and always will be.
Cooper: Did you get a chance to meet Congressman Grandy.
Tamburro: The one who played on The Love Boat.
Cooper: Yes, I didn’t want to say Gopher, but yes, him.
Tamburro: He’s no longer the chair of the International Goodwill Industries, but yeah, I was able to meet him once. You want to sing the Love Boat theme as soon as you see him.
Cooper: He’s a good sport about that, but I’m sure it grates on him. He’s done so many other things.
Tamburro: Oh, I know it! (laughs) Definitely.
Cooper: What, ultimately, do you think the value of Rhodes to Independence will be?
Tamburro: I think it has already proven to be groundbreaking in that there are a lot of different things that are going on in the country where companies can really help. They can volunteer their time, participate in walks and what have you. But this is something where we’re using a problem-solving process that is effective in corporate America to solve a human-service problem. I think if we can have this kind of synergy around us and get it going around the country a great chain reaction can occur.
Cooper: Recently you participated in a follow up session with the director of the Department of Human Services and some members of the business community to talk about outcomes of the Rhodes to Independence seminar. Tell me about that.
Tamburro: What was exciting was that I didn’t set it up; they asked me to come talk. So a lot of energy has been created around this project. And if we can continue that around the country, I think we’re going to do a wonderful job in helping people with disabilities really break into corporate America in a big way.
Cooper: I’d like to hear more about the panel.
Tamburro: It was held in Providence to brief the New England Partnerships’ quarterly meeting. This is an organization of health care professionals who were interested in what happened at the Rhodes to Independence event. The panel members had all participated in the recent six sigma event at the Rhodes to Independence Strategic Visioning Retreat and presented their overview, as well as areas they would be championing going forward.
Two of our leaders brought the group through an abbreviated version of how the process of seeking services works in RI. Everyone on the panel agreed that the process, in most states, is too complicated for both service providers and people with disabilities to navigate.
Cooper: Why do you think that is the case?
There are many people doing great things but they are in there own “silo” of expertise. Getting everyone to work together is vital to breaking down the barriers to employment for people with disabilities. This orchestra of professionals needs to not only follow the same conductor, but also insure they are on the same sheet of music!
Gary D. Alexander, Director of the RI Department of Human Services said, “To accomplish this goal, we are breaking down the silos to make this consumer-centric.”
After the meeting, I was approached by Dr. Jay Himmelstein, Professor of Family Medicine & Community Health at the University of Massachusetts. He was very interested in conducting a similar session in the state of Massachusetts.
The word is spreading.